Thursday, July 31, 2003

Urrgh. They are cutting down the trees in my street, which is a great pity. The whole pavement is covered in branches, and I suspect many of these will make their way into firewood piles sold by the side of the road on the the outskirts of the city. They started at 7am this morning, oh joy, and for half an hour I lay there unable to work out what the weird slip-slop sound was outside.

Well strictly speaking they are pollarding the trees, but they are doing it so viciously that most of the trees have no shoots left at all - maybe they're tough enough to survive that.

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Monday, July 28, 2003

Have started uploading the Macaneta photos. Macaneta is near the town of Maranguene, to the North of Maputo, just where the Incomati river nears the sea.

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Ah canna hold it much longer Captain! The heat has really begun to arrive in the last few days. It is still cold in the mornings, but by late afternoon the sun has sunk through the buildings and sucked the sea up into the air. This air blows in through the open verandah windows of our office (formerly "the freezer of Maputo") and makes an invisible blanket underneath your shirt. The effort of typing at a keyboard is enough to make you uncomfortable after a while.

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[Macaneta - Episode 1 - Photos will be uploaded soon]

What a journey! Luiz had hired a car but soon after we set off I discovered he had a Brazilian (or at least Cariocan) journey plan: don’t take a map, just ask people along the way. This in a city where almost no-one has a car, let alone uses it to travel outside Maputo.

Several interesting rides through dusty outskirts later, we arrived at the airport, which is tiny – kind of the feel of a UK supermarket circa 1985, e.g. Fine Fare: small carpark and dark concourse. Its hard to describe how strange it was to simply turn off a normal street and two seconds later park right in front of the main entrance of the capital’s international airport. Furthermore, as it was Sunday the place was almost deserted – as far as I could see only one international flight arrives today, from Lisbon.

Anyway we weren’t actually there for the flying, instead we were going to pick up a couple of girls that Luiz had somehow arranged to meet, at an abandoned petrol station across the road from the airport. Don’t ask me why this was the rendezvous. Anyway Luiz can’t have arranged very well, because after an hour of no show we rang up and they had allegedly ‘gone to church’. At least that’s what they’d told their brother… We’ll find out next week no doubt.

So at this point we decided to head off anyway – Luiz always choosing the dodgiest and least geographically-aware looking types to ask for directions, though he professes to be a cautious person. I have to admit that we did find our way to the big road north without too many wrong turns, and eventually I wangled the car through the chaos onto the expressway (imagine doing a right-turn onto the A8 except there are no traffic lights or road-markings, and pedestrians wandering everywhere).

Luiz likes his cars and he was obviously itching to head out on the highway now that we’d passed Nutbush city limits, so I stopped on one of the few patches of the hard shoulder which didn’t have street-hawkers, and we swapped.

Now we burned it up through 30 miles of beautiful ‘countryside’, except unlike in Britain it is populated all along the roadside for miles outside the city, people building their own one-storey houses with concrete blocks and cement. Other houses were still ruined shells, damaged or abandoned during the war. 11 years ago you would never have driven in this part of the country except in convoy, there was so much danger of attack by the ‘rebels’ [read a history book if you want to find out who I mean – given my job here I am staying off national politics]. Perhaps the war was also the cause for the total lack of signpostage – which was a bit serious since we were doing the trip mapless.

Eventually we pulled in to an almost-deserted pitstop where the barmaid gave very simple directions which her half-cut husband repeated with more drama but less clarity. We passed one tiny turn off in 20km and decided that it had to be the one. Just to boost our tally of Mozambicans to randomly interrupt, I double-checked in a roadside store which could have been in rural Zimbabwe, except it had even less on the shelves. Although I only managed to say “hello” in Shangaan, this pleased him immensely and he described the turn-off as being on a curve in the main road, as it comes down a slope.

This might sound rubbish but in fact the road is v. straight and flat, so the curvy hill in question was indeed an ideal landmark. We took the turn off and a few minutes later we could see the wide band of the Incomati river as it nears the sea [see pics]. Down the hill and we arrived at the ferry terminal and joined a small queue of cars. Finally we were almost there (we thought). But it took another 40 mins till the ferry had got enough cars on the other side to be worth its while to make the crossing. As there were no boarding lanes or anything, all the disembarking cars had to kind of fight their way through the cars trying to embark, a real palaver. Luckily there were no bangs or crashes, and soon our car was perched perilously on the ferryboat, which was really more of a motorized raft, about 10 yards to a side. The back of the car was sticking out from the deck but then other more expensive cars were in the same situation so we decided it was fine.

While the final cars were loading, I wanted to take a picture of the captain and the pilot who were squeezed into a tiny cabin sticking up from the flat raft. To be on the safe side I went to ask him first, as people here can get awful touchy about furriners photographing strategic assets such as this. Unfortunately this was the wrong plan, as I realised he really wouldn’t have given a sh*t. However once I had asked him and he had chewed on the apparent bizarreness of my request, he realized there might something in it and ask me for 10 cigarettes.
“I don’t smoke”
“10 cigarettes”
“So... I don't smoke, I don´t have any cigarettes”
“Well, you can just go up to the bar on shore and buy some”
“No its alright, I’ll just leave it”

This kind of thing is why I gave up taking pictures for so many years. I must admit though a digital camera makes it 10 times more fun, definitely a good purchase.

[continued above...]

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Friday, July 25, 2003

I am signing off for now as I am going to go home and get my Judo kit. Hopefully I will have more luck than last friday and there will actually be a class.

Promise I will try and get some foties up this weekend.

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But luckily it has turned into a very peaceful day, the guys upstairs have stopped drilling and there are no ships tooting as they leave the quayside.

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Friday again, this has been an extremely draining week, spent a lot of time trying to avoid civil war between various members of the team. Things have calmed down a bit now, but I'm not convinced that some people aren't still fomenting unrest. We'll see...

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Thursday, July 24, 2003

Today I am wearing a 20-rand (about GBP 1.80 shirt) and 70-rand trousers which I bought in SA.
That is cheaper than going to the laundry.

However they ain't the most stylish things I have ever worn.

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Yesterday made another visit to South Africa, as my visa was due to expire. Needless to say when we got to the Mozambican consulate we found that the information we had been given was incorrect, and we had not brought the correct documentation to obtain a working visa. So we just got another 30-day visa instead. However after some persistent questioning of the rather rude lady at the consulate, we managed to write down an exact list of the fearsome array of documents we need to bring to the consulate.

While waiting for the visas to be processed we spent some hours in a cavernous shopping mall in Nelspruit, the gem of Mpumalanga province. I bought plenty of cheap manufactured goods.

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Monday, July 21, 2003

Just come out of a three-hour meeting which we will be resuming tomorrow. Wah! However it was quite productive.

More on food: today I had Matapa for lunch, which is a delicious local stew made with spinach, coconut and shrimps. The only problem was that in my hasty greed [shouldn't that be greedy haste - ed?] I ate almost the whole plate about 6 minutes and then was unable to move for fear of being sick. Luckily though my digestive system is well-trained and within 15 mins I was able to fit a custard pie in that I bought from a little kiosk on the way back to the office. This is not a custard pie in the traditional 'stick in the face of Bill Gates' sense, it is a common delicacy in Maputo which is quite small with a tastily-burnt top. Kind of like creme caramel.

Today the weather has gone back to thick and hot, dark clouds pushing the warm air down but only touching your face with tiny spits of rain. Looming.

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Ate an enormous steak at the weekend, we had a barbecue at the boss's house.

Unfortunately I didn't realise the steaks were coming so by the time they arrived I had already eaten a whole pile of other stuff and could only fit one (the size of a small atlas) in.
V. v. tasty.

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Friday, July 18, 2003

On wednesday I walked through a kind of park to get to the Gym (where the Judo class is).
I say kind of because it is more an area of uncleared woodland which people relax in than anything officially designated.

It was quite pleasant, tall gum trees providing the shade. As I walked through I noticed a woman stretching after a jog - but as I got closer she stuck her elbows out and starting twisting from side-to-side very fast, almost violently. This didn't seem to be related to my approach, instead it was some kind of exercise: although it seemed her top half was likely to fly off and spin to the ground.

I was at first bemused, but ten yards further on, at 'crosspaths' (like a crossroads, but for paths) there was a battered metal sign telling you to do 30 twists and 20 touch-toes. It didn't mention that you had to do them at the speed of light, but neither did it expressly tell you to go gently on your ligaments....

Looking around, I could see that each crosspaths in the park had a similar sign. Painful visions of innocent Mozambicans doing their physicals as instructed by the government ensued - at each sign ripping a different set of muscles or breaking a different joint. Maybe tomorrow I will go and take some photos of them. Then I could make a new exercise regime based on them and sell it to Hollywood actresses. The protein-only diet fad must surely be coming to an end by now, so they'll be looking for something new...

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The photos were charming. The weather is a lot nicer today, the air is not so thick.

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Thursday, July 17, 2003

Just waiting for Gomes to turn up and give us a lift home - its only 6.30pm, the earliest I have gone home all week. Plus friday tomorrow.
Today has been exhausting, really humid and hot. And this is winter! I have found a judo class which I am going to try out tomorrow evening.

Some photos of my brother's birthday bash have just arrived so I shall look at them when I get home.

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Zoom it has got to thursday already and I haven´t written a thing.

V. v. busy, I must take a photo of our office as the project is slowly taking shape before our eyes. One day it will be good to look back and see that it all started in this one chaotic room with the almost permanent sound of an electric drill overhead (the drill is preparing our ´proper´ offices apparently). On the other hand strictly speaking I couldn´t show anyone the photo for 5 years after I finish my contract...

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Monday, July 14, 2003

Had a great Sunday today, ate porridge on the verandah in the Sun and took some panorama photos with my camera. Hopefully these should now be on the website - sorry if I caused a mass stampede of undue excitement the other day when I announced there were some photos there - I screwed it up and they never appeared.

The regular flow of unexpected visitors to the flat continued. Today one was a Mozambican woman, looking very run-down but who was very switched on and spoke English pretty well too, who wanted money for an operation. She showed me a horrendous looking oozing lump on her stomach which she said was the result of poor hygiene at the hospital when she had had a previous operation. This had led to the operation wound failing to heal up etc. She needed 2.6mn Meticais (about USD110) to pay for another operation to get it sorted out. Her story didn´t quite add up as if it had really been caused by an operation wouldn´t she have been laid low with blood poisoning or gangrene or something pretty nasty? Plus, even in Mozambique, I couldn´t believe that you could get an operation for 100 bucks.

Still, unless she was a Hollywood makeup artist on the side, the lump looked real enough so I gave her some money.

Later on, as the sun was beginning to climb down from the sky and the trees which line all the streets here lengthened their shadows over the pavement, I went for a run for the first time. First along Friedrich Engels, a quiet boulevard overlooking the shore, then down onto the Litoral highway as it winds past the swanky hotels. Up through the rich residences (bigwigs and expats) to the Northeast of the centre, along streets lined with guards chatting to each other, with the occasional monster Alsatian barking at me through a steel grille. Here everyone parks their cars on the street so they have to have guards there - perhaps three to a house, a whole separate world. Sometimes my progress interrupted a conversation between two speakers twenty feet apart, one on each side of the road. I can now say hello in Shangaan which got some smiles.

Then back to the south-east, zigzagging through the mainly black middle middle-class areas - here there are less guards, and children play on the pavement. A few stares at a Mulungu (white person) running but everyone is very chilled out here.

Finally back down across the ´East Asian leaders´ streets (Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Sung - I must work out some time if they have actually grouped the names according to the real geography of the world) and back along the ever-busy 24 de Julho with its shops and apartments.

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As it turned out I didn´t go to South Africa because I couldn´t get a copy of my criminal record ready in time. But I didn´t miss much as the Mozambican consulate in Nelspruit was closed. Instead I had a relaxing Saturday – sleeping, eating, and buying things for the house in a haphazard fashion.

This was partly due to laziness on my part, but partly due to force of circumstances. I went with my flatmate to three supermarkets in a row on the hunt for cutlery and crockery. In the first two there was no cutlery and the only bowls they had were mega-tacky pretend-ornate ´china´ stuff, in brightly coloured boxes a little faded from the sun.

However in the third supermarket, the huge (for Maputo) “China-Mozambique Friendship Store” we thought we were in luck. We collected bowls and mugs, and then around a corner we found some knives. All made in China and fairly sturdy looking. But only one spoon – we needed four. I took it to the cash desk and asked the girl if they had any more. “No, they´re all finished”.
“So, when will you have some more – next week maybe?”.
“Next month!

Not to be disheartened (as the spoon was very reasonably priced) we hunted for a supervisor and asked her – but the story was the same. Given that many of China´s consumer goods industry are groaning under the weight of their overcapacity and ´me-too´ expansion strategies, one might have thought that the supermarket (all the managers are mainland Chinese) would have been a bit snappier on the restocking. Especially since upstairs they had huge but almost untouched aisles of random stuff that no-one seemed to want: children´s beach pails, preserved fruits, ´Scientifically proven´ fat-reducing herbal tea, etc.

On the other hand the supermarket has only been open about a month so give it time. Despite its occasionally bizarre selection of goods it is a step up from some of the other ´supermercados´, plus the staff are all very good-looking which is a bonus.

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Thursday, July 10, 2003

Just found out that we are going to South Africa on Saturday (leaving at 6am - urrgh) to get our work permits sorted out. For some bizarre reason it is easier to do this at the Mozambican consulate in Nelspruit just across the border than in Maputo itself. Anyway it will also be a chance to buy cheap goods to kit out our flat. The only problem is that each person is only allowed to import $50 of personal goods across the border per trip. If they catch you with any more than that you have to pay 40% duties on the excess.

Despite the tax setup, so many people, including many Mozambican individuals and wholesalers, do their shopping across the border that Nelspruit is apparently one of the fastest growing areas in South Africa.

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Arrghh! There is a locksmith repairing a door in our office and every two mins he has to get the hacksaw out - it is incredibly noisy.
However it turns out his company is only ten mins walk from our flat so perhaps I can get him to come and sort my bedroom door.

As for the troosas, I managed to finally get a ´nice pair´on the way to work this morning, all cotton and only 31 waist.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Got another lift from Gomes the Taxi Driver yesterday (aka ´Karate´). I worked around to asking him why his car was so banged up. It turns out there´s a good reason: he works the night shift and fancy cars simply get ripped off by hijackers - he already lost one car that way. So he sticks with the old banger and the carjackers leave him alone.

I have arranged a tutor to teach me Shangaan (the most widely-spoken Bantu language in the Maputo area) and the first lesson is this evening. On the way home I need to buy some trousers as handwashing them is getting tiresome (my super-flat has no washing machine, so we´ll probably end up hiring someone). Unfortunately all trousers on sale here seem to fall into two categories:
1) Imported Diesel jeans for the gilded youth - at an enormous markup to their already hefty starting price
2) Ill-fitting 50% polyester numbers which only go down to a 34 waist.

Maybe I can find a ´third way´....

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Tuesday, July 08, 2003

The new blanket was fine, though my beauty sleep, and then my shower was disturbed by a string of visitors hoping to find the owner of the flat still living here.

It seems she hasn´t told anyone of her new address (including me). Since there are 5 locks in between my bedroom and the front-door, each ring at the bell was a fair old trip.

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Monday, July 07, 2003

Well yesterday I spent my first night in the flat. It really is all that. Plus the more I get to know the area its in, the better - it has everything, from late night shops to bars and restaurants of all descriptions, to tumbledown colonial mansions, to people running grocery stalls out of their front gardens.

Also, it is in an area which is home to several key government ministries. Result: power cuts and spikes are rare, and some of the streets have lighting. Today I timed walking to work: thirty minutes door-to-door, lugging a very heavy laptop, and with several stops to buy from street hawkers along the way.

The only minor hiccup so far is that I managed to lock my bedroom door - permanently, as the key snapped. So I have to get in via the verandah which also connects to the next room along. Apart from this its great. Once everyone has moved in we are going to have a barbecue (aka 'churrasco') in the enormous 'porch' (we're on the the third floor so I'm not sure if you can call it a porch).

Last night was unexpectedly cold, as was today. It seems that Maputo can get pretty windy. So at lunchtime I went for a walk around the commercial district to hunt for a blanket. Everything does seem very busy, there is a whole network of retailers, wholesalers and repair shops for everything from clothes to plumbing. However one thing I noticed was that almost every shop of any size was owned either by the Indian community (many of whom have been here for generations) or occasionally people from mainland China. Then when you move up to the big companies they are pretty much all run by South Africans, Portuguese or Brazilians. That's the impression I get at least - a very high degree of dependency on external capital and management - but I was speaking to a very switched-on Mozambican PR person at the weekend and she said that it was indeed pretty much as bad as it looks.

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Saturday, July 05, 2003

Taxis in Mozambique are a story in themselves. Since the streets can be dodgy at night you really need to use a taxi to get home any time you go out in the evening. But since the radio-cab system hasn't yet reached Moz, the only solution is to have a vast array of Taxi numbers in your phone and ring them one-by-one until you get someone who is actually 'on the job' just then.

The other day I had to get home very late from the place where my cousin had been staying. I had no joy with any of my numbers, so I hunted through the yellow pages there until I found one that claimed to be 24-hours. The only problem was that my cousin's place was a backpackers little known to Mozambicans, on the long winding street named (in the style of all Maputo streets) after an anti-colonial hero - in this case Patrice Lumumba. This street always makes me a bit sad, since it is a reminder of the poor man who was in many ways the 'fall guy' who took the hit for the Congo's implosion when the Belgians got out, after the 75-year human disaster of their colonial rule. Lumumba only ruled for a few months, then he was ousted and killed by a coup which led to a CIA trainee taking the top job in Kinshasa - the delightful Mr. Mobutu. Poor Congo.

Anyway, when I phoned up this guy he sounded a bit doubtful about being able to find me - as a result I agreed to bump up the price by 40%. So after 15 mins he still hasn't showed up and I ring him 'yes, I'm on the way, just coming up the street now'. After 10 more mins still no sign - so I asked the security guard on the gate for a hand. He pointed out that while no-one had heard of the Backpacker's, /everyone/ knew about the famous restaurant just opposite. Said famous restaurant didn't look much from the outside, being a dusty classic of 60s architecture, but I took him at his word and sure enough when I rang the motorista (taxi driver) he brightened up at the mention of 'Restaurante Chai' and appeared 2 minutes later.

I was a bit miffed at his navigational crapness, but when I got in the car he was such a class act that there was no point being annoyed. He was quite a chunky guy, made even bulkier by his two coats and balaclava against the cold. The car was some kind of old Trabant, so the overall effect was of Batfink's sidekick 'Karate', crammed into the driving seat. He was a good laugh and explained that he managed his unique 24-hour coverage by doing shifts with his son. Despite the advanced age of the car we got back to my hotel in no time, seeing as Maputo has almost no traffic at 11.30pm! Needless to say I have added his number to my phone...

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Friday, July 04, 2003

!!Just deleted an hour-and-a-half worth of work on the project plan! Feeling v. clever.
The reason is that in the Portuguese version of the software the shortcut for "Save" is CTRL + B. So all the time I was hitting CTRL + S, thinking that it was all safe.
I knew things were going too smoothly today...

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Friday at work has come around and it seems like we have been here forever.
This week has been pretty tough but today we have come out of the tunnel a bit, or something. I have finally set up a server in our new office (its a great location, just near the railway station) which allows us all to connect our laptops to the internet so from now on my posts should be a bit more regular.

The city is buzzing because of the African Union conference, every hotel, restaurant and greasy spoon is stowed out.

This evening we are going to sign the contract for our "fleti" (Maputo Portuguese for "flat") and then we move in on Sunday. That will be a relief as I have had enough of the hotel, it has the world´s worst lift system which takes forever and sounds like it was designed to work on a mine in the Transvaal.

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